I’ve just met my new dogshare puppy, Buddy. I will be helping to look after him on days when his owner cannot take him to work. He is a lively, cuddly and confident little pup and I fell in love with him at first sight.
A Cavoodle is a cross between a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel and a toy or medium Poodle. Such dogs, weighing 4-12 kg, are said to be very affectionate, energetic and intelligent. Apparently they love human company, being prone to separation anxiety when alone; are not especially keen on food (what a contrast to my Labrador dogshare, Ireland); and are good swimmers.
Buddy is a 2nd generation cross, from two Cavoodle parents, and through the genetic lottery appears to be more Spaniel than Poodle. He looks very like a Blenheim Cavalier King Charles Spaniel – chestnut and white, with a “Blenheim spot” on the top of his head. According to the Wikipedia site about that breed: “The Blenheim spot is also known as the mark of the Duchess Thumb Print, based on the legend that Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, while awaiting news of her husband’s safe return from the Battle of Blenheim, pressed the head of an expecting dam with her thumb, resulting in five puppies bearing the lucky mark after news that the battle had been won.”
Dogsharing involves dividing both the joys and responsibilities of dog ownership between households, in a flexible way arranged on an individual basis, for the benefit of both the humans and animals concerned. Within New Zealand, matches can be arranged through the Dogshare Collective.
More than 50 years after graduating from Oxford University Medical School, I found a boxful of letters and diaries which I had written during my clinical course. To a naive 20-year-old from a rather sheltered home background, whose first degree at Leeds University had involved more work than play, life in Oxford was a revelation – intellectually, socially and emotionally. My memory for the past is fairly patchy and though I clearly recall some of the people, places and events described, I have forgotten many others which were obviously significant at the time. I was known by my maiden name, Jenny Collins.
The course was mainly based at the old Radcliffe Infirmary in Woodstock Rd. For some attachments we visited the Churchill Hospital, where I would later become a junior doctor and eventually a consultant, Cowley Road Hospital, and the Nuffield Orthopaedic Centre. The Radcliffe Infirmary was closed in 2007 and its site is now occupied by university offices. The hub of student life was Osler House (not to be confused with the present clubhouse of the same name on the John Radcliffe site) an 18th century listed building in the hospital grounds. Downstairs was a lounge, bar and kitchen. Morning coffee and afternoon tea were provided free. Upstairs were bedrooms for use when on call. There was an attractive garden with a croquet lawn. Each student also had an attachment to an Oxford college – mine was Somerville – but being postgraduate did not live in. My first few months were spent lodging in Summertown with the mother of a family friend, the widow of a bishop and a keen supporter of Moral Rearmament. After I had moved into my own flat, my former landlady continued to invite me for dinner on Sunday evenings.
Our intake contained only 18 or 20 students. Being divided into even smaller groups for clinical attachments, we got a great deal of individual attention from our teachers. For me, as one of the few women in a male-dominated environment, this was often of a kind which would not be tolerated nowadays. As well as clerking patients we were given considerable responsibility for practical procedures such as taking blood, putting up drips, lumbar punctures, delivering babies, and assisting with surgical operations.
There were periods of intense activity – on take for medicine and surgery, night deliveries in obstetrics, preparing for exams. But otherwise the pace of work was fairly leisurely and allowed time for a vibrant social life. Lunches, dinners, parties and outings were frequent and usually involved vast quantities of food and drink. I sang in the hospital choir and in my final year played a good fairy in the students’ pantomime, Tingewick. I must have done a certain amount of studying but most of my free time seems to have been spent entertaining friends for supper or afternoon tea, making my own dresses, listening to pop music, or walking around Oxford which was then a peaceful place with few cars. Several of my friends did have cars, and when they were driving north would give me lifts home at weekends. It was a privileged and mostly hugely enjoyable life which, I imagine, was far more relaxed and informal than for clinical students today.
Much of what I wrote is too trivial, personal or libellous to publish, but maybe I will adapt some extracts for a series of blog posts, a memoir of a novel. Meanwhile I’d be pleased to hear from anyone who remembers those times.
Since retiring from medical practice I’ve exchanged the role of doctor for those of patient and of patient’s wife, and being on the other side of the fence has been an interesting experience. Between the two of us, my husband and I have needed to see a good many different healthcare professionals from various specialties in recent years. Most of them were excellent, but a few were unsatisfactory and this was usually because of their poor “communication skills”.
Following the retirement of the family doctor we had known and trusted for a long time, I saw a GP whose failings included a rude manner, ordering me to take a long-term prescription for a new drug without any discussion of its efficacy and side-effects, and – as I discovered later – referring me to a hospital clinic without telling me. After that I changed to a different practice and am very happy with my doctor there, but my experience with the previous one distressed me for a long time, illustrating the importance of a good therapeutic relationship not only for improving patients’ emotional well-being, but for influencing their compliance with treatment and the outcome of their disease.
I don’t remember having any guidance about how to relate to patients when I was at medical school in the 1960s, nor during my junior doctor posts. Senior role models varied greatly in their approach, ranging from the caring and compassionate to the arrogant and disrespectful. In the later years of my career this aspect of clinical practice began to be taken more seriously, led by specialties such as general practice, oncology and palliative care. Communication skills training is now included in the education of doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals, though its long-term impact must be difficult to measure, and depend on the student’s personality. The skills may come naturally to those who have chosen their career for humanitarian reasons. Those who are mainly interested in the scientific and technical side, or whose prime objective is making money, may pay little attention to such “soft” subjects in the curriculum.
The basic principles should be obvious, simply involving courtesy, common sense and genuine concern for the patient. Giving a polite and friendly greeting. Meeting in a clean and tidy consulting room free of interruptions. Listening to the patient’s story with genuine interest and empathy. Taking account of the patient’s knowledge and preferences when discussing management of the problem.
Conducting the interview becomes more difficult in the case of a serious condition. The medical literature contains many studies about techniques of “breaking bad news”, usually in relation to a cancer diagnosis, and I won’t attempt to detail them all here. Key points include giving truthful information without destroying hope. And avoiding dogmatic statements about prognosis, because the outcome in individual cases can vary so much from the average. Negative predictions can be self-fulfilling as well as disheartening, whereas except in the most dire situations there is always some help to be offered, and some scope for improvement. Another point highlighted by our recent experiences is that illness can be just as stressful for relatives as for patients themselves.
Although I’m including this post in the Devonport walks series, it actually relates to a different part of Auckland. This is because Ireland, the dogshare Labrador I’d been walking most afternoons for four years, has moved out of the city with his owners’ family. Contact is less frequent now, but our bond continues unbroken, and Ireland greeted me ecstatically when we met halfway for a visit to the Normanton Reserve in the Wairau Valley suburb.
I had driven around there many times in the past for business purposes, not for pleasure because it is a rather unattractive industrial area prone to traffic congestion. I had no idea there was a peaceful green reserve close by, hidden away at the end of a cul de sac.
The large flat grassed field on the lower level of Normanton Park offers activities for both adults and children. On the path that encircles the perimeter there are a series of exercise machines – I did not try these. There is a playground, a small basketball court and a small skateboarding park, a picnic area and toilet block, all clean and well maintained.
On an upper level, reached by a short flight of steps, is a large field in a more natural state with plenty of room for a dog to run free.
Ireland’s departure has been a loss but I will certainly keep in touch with him and meanwhile, with other local dogshare opportunities on the cards, have had the gaps in our garden hedge sealed off …
Brian and I spent two days on Waiheke Island, staying in a comfortable and spacious holiday home surrounded by native bush and overlooking the sea. Though New Zealand’s summer is nearly over, the weather was sunny and hot. Waiheke has a semitropical climate, lush vegetation, sandy beaches, boutique vineyards and olive groves, a friendly and somewhat bohemian vibe, and feels a world away from the mainland.
Except during Auckland’s lockdown periods we have often made day trips to Waiheke. The 40-minute ferry ride from the city centre, across a calm blue sea flanked by other small islands, always induces a sense of relaxation. Parts of my novel Cardamine are set on Waiheke and this extract contains some references to the history and geography of the island.
Waiheke holds many memories for me, some bittersweet. Stonyridge Vineyard has been our usual venue for birthday and anniversary lunches. Our group of local Bach flower remedy practitioners, now depleted by the loss of key members, has held weekend gatherings in more modest settings such as the Quaker meeting house. The sad story of my first rescue cat, Orange Roughy, had a happy ending when he was successfully rehomed on the wild far reaches of the island.
During this recent short holiday we went swimming at Palm Beach, climbed up and down a steep track for coffee and galettes in Bisou cafe at Surfdale, dined at Vino Vino and The Courtyard in Oneroa.
I have just turned 75, and it feels like the right time to review my long and winding journey to becoming an author.
Writing was my first love and as a child growing up in Kent I produced a variety of short stories and plays. These early works have long since been thrown away and their content forgotten, though I think they usually featured cats and dogs. I did well in English at school and was expected to take a university degree in that subject, but in my teens I developed an idealistic wish to heal the sick. The medical courses at Leeds and Oxford, then life as a junior doctor, absorbed so much time and energy that I never even thought about writing fiction again till years later.
It was after many changes both professional and personal that I decided on a career in psychiatry, and when studying for the postgraduate qualifications I compiled my notes into what would turn out to be my first book. A senior colleague suggested sending it to a publisher. It was accepted, and without any marketing on my part sold well and continued into five editions; by far my greatest commercial success. I moved on to academic posts, involving opportunities for research, writing papers for journals, and medical books relevant to my specialty of the interface between psychiatry and cancer.
In my mid-30s, when finally settled into a contented domestic life, I wrote three novels inspired by my earlier work experience in general practice and in mental hospitals. I enjoyed this tremendously, and given my earlier success with the psychiatry book, I assumed that I would have no trouble getting them published. I was soon disillusioned. Some rejection letters were encouraging but others were not, and I was so upset by one damning verdict that I put the manuscripts aside for 20 years. An overreaction, and I now realise that you can’t please everyone and that even the best of books gets an occasional bad review. Knowing how devastating it can be for writers to receive harsh criticism of their work, I will only review a book myself if I can give an honest positive opinion.
Fast forward to my 50s when, after a rewarding career as consultant in psychological medicine in Oxford, I came to live in New Zealand. Alongside many new interests, I focused on writing and editing. Twenty years later I have a variety of titles, non-fiction and fiction in a variety of genres, some traditionally published and some under my independent imprint of Overcliff Books, listed on my Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk author pages. My current project is editing my husband’s autobiography. What, if anything, I will write next I don’t know.
I had plenty of time for reading during Auckland’s prolonged lockdown and the very hot summer which followed.
First, some popular novels set in the UK. The Rose Code by Kate Quinn, about three young women who worked as code-breakers at Bletchley Park during World War Two, is an intriguing and well researched combination of fact and fiction. Watch her Fall by Erin Kelly is a complicated story which gives insights into the world of ballet, and after reading it I will watch Swan Lake with new eyes. The Black Dress by Deborah Moggach, an elderly woman’s quest to find a new man after being deserted by her husband, is full of dark humour and was described in The Times review as a “deliciously savage tale of sex and death”. And Greenwich Park by Katherine Faulkner is a psychological thriller in which a pregnant woman’s life is disrupted by the stalker she meets at an antenatal class.
Next, a small selection of the many books recently published by members of the Auckland Crime Writers group. Blood on Vines by Madeleine Eskedahl, Quiet in her Bones by Nalini Singh and my own novel Cardamine are all set in New Zealand and evoke the local scenery of forests, beaches and vineyards. Some describe other locations. The Girl in the Mirror by Rose Carlyle is set on a yacht, and The Forger and the Thief by Kirsten McKenzie is a historical thriller set in Florence.
Two novels in the literary fiction genre. Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro, narrated in the voice of a gentle and observant robot who is purchased as the “artificial friend” of a fragile teenage girl, is a readable story which raises some profound questions. More challenging is We Germans by Alexander Starritt, in which an old man writes to his grandson in an attempt to come to terms with his past as a soldier serving on the Eastern front in World War Two.
Four non-fiction books which left an impression on me. The Devil You Know by Gwen Adshead and Eileen Horne contains a series of (disguised) case histories of psychotherapy with mentally disturbed criminal offenders, not all of whom could be helped. I reread an older book, The Power of Premonitions by Larry Dossey, a physician who has made a detailed study of “psi” phenomena. Against All Odds by Craig Challen and Richard Harris is a vivid description of the 2018 rescue of the young boys trapped in a cave in Thailand. Lastly, Dear John by Joan Le Mesurier is about her marriage to the actor who is still fondly remembered for his role as Sergeant Wilson in Dad’s Army.
It’s been a long time since we last had foster cats or kittens in the house, the reason being that I’ve usually ended up adopting them permanently. Having promised my husband that won’t happen again, last week I took in two more from a local animal welfare charity. It’s against the rules to post their photos online so I’ve used a stock image.
My first experience of fostering in New Zealand, over twenty years ago for a different charity, was quite informal. A litter of four small kittens was delivered to the door and I was left to get on with caring for them until they were old enough to be adopted. I kept one, Felix, a dearly loved cat as described in this post.
Nowadays, the role of a feline foster parent is much more tightly controlled. The online application process requires obtaining a criminal history check, answering multiple-choice quizzes based on the content of a 30-page manual, and submitting photos of the proposed foster room setup. After completing it successfully, I got a call from the volunteer coordinator and arranged an appointment to drive out to the nearest rescue centre.
I returned home with two kittens, a black male and a tortoiseshell female. They are about 10 weeks old and before being made available for adoption they will need to complete medication for an intestinal infection, receive worm and flea treatments and vaccinations, and gradually transition to a different diet. Looking after them involves providing fresh food and water, changing litter trays, and sessions of play and cuddles every few hours. I am also giving extra attention to our two adult cats who are being strictly kept apart from the kittens but are keenly aware of their presence. Leo seems frightened of them whereas Magic seems hostile.
Fostering these kittens is a big responsibility and time commitment, but also a delight, because they are as lively and affectionate as can be and it’s going to be hard to give them up.
A group of dogs who were bred in Auckland’s Guide Dog Centre meet every week for a “play date” in one of our local parks. Most of them are Labradors, either black or yellow. They include puppies in training, working dogs both active and retired, and those who were withdrawn from the training programme and are living as family pets. I was introduced to this group through Ireland, a four-year-old black Lab in the “withdrawn” category, who is owned by a local family. I am his “dog-sharer” who walks him almost every afternoon, as described in a series of my recent blog posts.
Three of the long-term canine members of the group have died in recent months. Two of them were near the end of their natural lifespan, which for Labradors is 10-12 years. The third, who was a little younger, had developed heart failure. Today we gathered in a beach-side reserve to honour their memories. The weather pattern of sunshine and showers mirrored the bittersweet mood of the occasion. There were tears as each of the bereaved owners delivered a short eulogy to their dog, but there was pleasure in sharing food and drink with friends while watching the younger Labs chase each other round the grass and jump into the water. Like a human memorial service, it was a significant event.
When I lived in England I volunteered with the Society for Companion Animal Studies (SCAS) to provide telephone support to people who were distressed by the loss of a pet. Through that work, as well as through my personal experience, I learned that the death of a beloved companion animal can be no less devastating than a human bereavement. Those who do not love animals find it difficult to understand grief of such intensity, and may make hurtful remarks like “It was only a dog” or “Why don’t you just get a new one”. A lost pet cannot simply be replaced in the same way as a worn-out garment or an old car. Having said that, many owners will find comfort by bringing another animal into their homes when they feel ready to do so.